Manoj Kumar understood the ‘soft power’ of patriotism in movies, how Bharat Kumar came into being

On Manoj Kumar’s 85th birthday, here’s recalling how he became known as Bharat Kumar in Hindi cinema.
The concept of watching a film might seem frivolous to some. It’s largely seen as a means of entertainment but if utilised appropriately, it can sway the opinion of the country. It can unite people from different backgrounds, and make them arrive at a common conclusion, but it can also create villains and ignite revolutions. The saffronisation of popular Hindi cinema in the last few years is a prime example of the same. But this isn’t the first time that the political climate of the country has been reflected in its cinema. Decades ago, actor-filmmaker Manoj Kumar understood the power of the medium of cinema and used it in a way that could unite the masses. And he continued to do so for years to come, thus getting the title of Bharat Kumar.

It is well known that the film that made Manoj an ‘authority’ on the subject of patriotism in Hindi cinema, Upkar, came as a request from the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. The slogan of ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ (Hail the soldier, hail the farmer) was coined by Shastri in 1965 when India was in the middle of a war with Pakistan, and simultaneously facing a food crisis. Shastri’s slogan was a way to cheer the defence forces, and also the farmers so the country could get past the turbulent time. Impressed by Manoj’s performance in Shaheed, where he played Bhagat Singh, Shastri suggested that he make a film that would unite the country, and promote the message. The star took on the challenge, and decided to direct the film as well as act in it. He played a soldier as well as a farmer here.

“I never intended to be a director in the first place. I became one by default when during Shaheed I had to direct the film unofficially. Then Lal Bahadur Shastri raised the slogan of Jai Jawan Jai Kisan. That’s how I made Upkar,” he told in an interview. With songs like “Mere Desh Ki Dharti”, Upkar became an astounding success, and Manoj Kumar was henceforth known as the man who understood how to extract the most out of a patriotic subject.

After Upkar, Manoj did not need anyone to assign him a patriotic subject to make a movie on, and so he took up his next – Purab Aur Paschim. For a viewer watching it in 2022, Purab Aur Paschim presents an idea of India that seems extremely dated and archaic. It is the kind of film which says that women wearing short clothes, drinking and smoking have forgotten their ‘Indian values’. Manoj plays Bharat here whose sole agenda is to make NRIs appreciate their roots, an idea that was polished and presented by YRF in the 1990s. Purab Aur Paschim has definitely not aged well but the film’s impact on the idea of how India is seen by its own people, and how they wish to be seen by foreigners was significant. A similar theme was seen in Akshay Kumar starrer Namaste London, where he referenced Manoj’s film as well.

In a chat with Rajya Sabha TV a few years ago, Manoj Kumar had mentioned that sometimes he felt the burden of being known as ‘Bharat Kumar’. He recalled that once a passerby had gotten upset with him as they saw him smoking and said that someone who represents ‘Bharat’ should not be smoking. “Mujhe Bharat Kumar banaya gaya. Bada bojh hai iss naam ka mujhpe. Bharat Kumar bhi aashirvaad hai, bojh bhi aashirvaad hai (I was forced to become Bharat Kumar. It is a burden. Bharat Kumar is a blessing, but even this burden is a blessing).”

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His next, the 1967 film Roti Kapda Aur Makaan, was once again based on a slogan given by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Here, he packed in all the stars of the time – Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor, Zeenat Aman, among others, and focused on the three fundamental needs of a layperson. The film was a resounding success and became one of the biggest blockbusters of 1974. Manoj’s Bharat was again the moral centre of the story as he designed a tale where good wins over evil, and the humble roots of a poor man are shown as the secret to his success.

After Roti Kapda Aur Makaan’s success, Manoj Kumar’s next in the Bharat series moved away from the current political climate. He went back to the British era and presented a story that had the capacity to unite Indians across the board. The 1981 film Kranti brought back Dilip Kumar to the silver screen after a five-year hiatus. Written by Salim-Javed, the film, also starring Manoj Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Hema Malini, Shashi Kapoor, Shatrughan Sinha and Parveen Babi, ran in theatres for over 60 weeks. Set in the 19th century, the movie focused on a fictional revolutionary war against the British and here, Manoj spared no expense in mounting the biggest ever patriotic film that the country had seen to date.

Kranti tapped into the very fundamental feeling that most Indians could relate with – the vilification of the British empire, and the struggle of the many Indians who fought against them. While in Purab Aur Paschim too, Manoj had pitted the British against the Indians, in Kranti, there was no room left to even ponder that the Britishers were ruthless rulers to innocent Indians.

In his later years, Manoj Kumar made a few more films but they did not engage the audience in the same way as his earlier work.

Till date, when an actor starts picking a whole lot of films that have a patriotic bend, they are said to be following the footsteps of Manoj Kumar.

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